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Simple can be powerful

Standing Nude Standing Nude,  watercolor class demonstration

An art dealer made a strong suggestion to me a few weeks ago. He urged me to do a complete inventory of all of my paintings both sold and unsold. ALL meant going back, way back into the sixties. It was a daunting task but it is now done. As I posted earlier I had been remiss in not keeping up with my work as thoroughly as I should.  Along the way in this journey I had some pleasant surprises and was forced to review a lot of older sketch books that I had forgotten.

Class Demonstration: Simplicity

One of those items is the subject of my posting. Standing Nude was included in the updated, revised edition of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Vol.1.  This is a small painting that was done for one of my life classes. It is a small piece yet it conveys a powerful effect. The piece is deceptively simple.  I’ll also confess that I was very fortunate that it clicked so easily. I have always believed that students deserve complete honesty. I’ll explain. It is my opinion that students need to see an instructor work. It can be nerve wracking but there are times when we just bomb out and the demo just doesn’t work. OOPS!  Can we say AWKWARD?

Doing an impromptu full figure can be a dangerous choice. Thankfully, this one worked beautifully in a very short period of time. Everything just clicked into place.

Two colors:

All too often watercolor students think that watercolor glazing techniques are slow and tedious. Well, they don’t have to be. The choice is yours. The work can be bright and spontaneous; it all depends upon you and your subject.

The first color, Winsor Violet, was used as an under painting or grisalle. The complement,  Indian Yellow, was washed over the dried under painting. Nothing fancy, very simple,  yet the effect is very profound.   As I stated earlier this piece was a part of a life class demonstration. We were working with the wonders of color and complexion. At the time we were discussing the Royal Academy method of dividing complexions into various color schemes or sub-groups.

While one may not want to paint by formula the basic rudiments are very helpful for a foundation. It may be a surprise for some that with this method blondes, red haired models and some ethnic groups are often depicted with the fewest number of colors while brunettes have as many as seven (7) key colors.

I discuss these formulas as guidelines for those seeking to gain a foundation. Hopefully no one will allow the suggestion to become a strait jacket or rigid law of operation. Always let your model and your perception guide you.

Careful under painting is the secret:

The secret to success is careful under painting. What do  I mean? Think transparent. The early strokes will make a great impact upon the final piece.  Always remember that the white of your paper is your brightest bright. Consequently you want to make sure to avoid painting the brightest highlight areas.   Some call it “saving your whites”.  No matter what you call it keep your painting fresh. Be judicious but not uptight as you apply your first washes. Keep in mind that the initial washes will shine through and influence your finished painting. I hate to use the analogy, but think of a monochromatic photograph.  In a properly lit and  exposed photograph one can see  a variety of values.  Think about this when you are painting.  Let your washes  blend and merge with a delicacy that gives the illusion of flesh.  The graded washes of violet are almost invisible in some areas  while the Indian Yellow was applied very sparingly.  In this interplay of color combination the colors tend to lose some of their individuality and merge to produce the illusion of living, glowing flesh.


Careful observation is the beginning and is of utmost importance to a successful painting.  Take time to really observe your subject. For some of us this may take longer than it does for others. Find your own pace. Strengthen yourself to avoid being intimidated by what you think others are doing. Be true to yourself. After all you can’t really be anyone else, now can you?

Final thoughts:

You can see the date on this painting. It may have been painted before some of you were born. In the ensuing years some painting formulations have changed.  You may or may not get the same effect from brand to brand. The answer is EXPERIMENT. All color in this depiction was produced with only the two colors mentioned.  What is the point of the post? Open your eyes to the possibility of the color combinations you have.  Take the time to play with your colors.  Change the ratio of color mixes in order to see what happens.

Today I use M. Graham Indian Yellow and Winsor Violet. In the  90’s I may have used Grumbacher Indian Yellow or something else. As I get older some things dim in my memory. Regardless all sorts of color possibilities exist. Do you know what your colors can do for you?

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More Plein Aire


Watercolor on site demonstration.  9″ x 12″ on 140lb. cold press.  Blue Ridge Farm

There is a lot to be said for painting on location, especially when there is an abundance of magnificent subject matter.  Wonderful views can be breath taking but even more importantly one should seek out the subjects that excite YOUR passion.  In this series I will be exhibiting on-site watercolors that were done in the Blue Ridge Parkway area in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Farm

This piece was done fairly quickly and has a spontaneous feeling to it. It was accomplished in under an hour, more like about 40 minutes.  While there was no rush, the sunlight and the breeze speeded up the drying time.  The palette was simple.  I used thalo blue for the sky, Indian yellow and thalo blue for the green and a hint of violet for the distant mountain and the house. The stand of pine trees was added after the paper was dry.  The initial wash for the sky was applied over a wet surface, taking care to avoid wetting the house. With a bit of practice you can paint right up to the edge of an area with a great deal of precision. The trick is that the watercolor wash will migrate freely over the dampened area but with care it will not venture onto the dried sheet.

When I use the word care I mean to say it is best to allow the wash to migrate on its own. If you have too much water it may be difficult to keep it from wandering into a dry portion of the paper.  With a little practice you can take advantage of the dampened sheet without diluting the color too much.

Materials / Travel Light  

I prefer to travel light leaving non-essentials at home. What is essential? Water, watercolor paper, pencils, brushes and paint.  For paper I prefer to use a 140lb. coldpress watercolor block because it is convenient.  In the studio I often staple my paper to a 5/8″ thick sheet of plywood.  I have several that I have sealed with varnish and have been using them for years.  Today a lot of my students choose Gator board.   Since I still have good plywood boards I see no reason to change. However, this is a matter of preference.  In the field the block lightens my load and allows me to work without having to worry about buckled paper. I always find a log , rock or some other support to rest the block without an easel.

I have a beautiful French easel but it is added weight.  I started out using one outside but found the weight was a restriction in many of the places I was visiting.  Try rappeling down the face of a cliff with a lot of added  weight or jumping from rock to rock to get to the right vantage point.  I do use an Army surplus ammunition can for my water storage and for a painting bucket. Yes, it is heavy but a good tight, no leak, water source is vital. That is why I suggest that you consider what you REALLY need and what you can do without.

Painting Procedure

I’m old school. When  I paint on-site,  I sketch and paint on-site.  At times I will take photographs for later reference but my primary focus is the subject I am painting. This is why I believe PASSION is vital. If you are not aching to paint it, why bother? I don’t use Photoshop or other manipulations on photos. To each his own but I prefer to get caught up in a dialogue with the object that has sparked my desire. Later in the studio if I desire to delve deeper I will drag out the photos, if I have any, to take me back to the moment. I like to use photos like a sort of time machine. I hear the sounds, smell the smells and am transported back to the spot.

mountain farm_56 24.5x 14DSC_0694                                                Mountain Pasture,  Blue Ridge. 20″ x 14″ , 140lb. cold press watercolor paper.

Mountain Pasture, Blue Ridge

Another simple on-site attempt.  The palette is very limited.  Indian Yellow, Thalo blue and Winsor Red. I quickly drew in a simple horizon line and roughly positioned the buildings before dampening the sky down to the horizon line taking care to avoid getting any water on the buildings. I took a moment to carefully introduce water around each of the building shapes.  This is a critical moment, so be careful.   A pale wash of dilute Thalo blue was washed into the sky and allowed to descend to the horizon line.  While the paper was barely damp I put in another wash of pale blue with a touch of Indian Yellow to create the distant mountain range. If you consider the edge you can see that some dry areas produced a crisp edge while a couple of damp spots blurred, creating a hazy effect.

Horizon line 

A careful examination of the horizon line will reveal a very thin white line. While the sky and distant range was drying completely I took my large 3″ brush and dampened the foreground. I was VERY careful to keep the area above the horizon line from bleeding into the damp foreground. While this is not quite like brain surgery you do want to be careful to keep the two damp areas from intermingling. That way you can prevent an uncontrolled bleed between the two areas from occurring.  While the foreground was damp I brushed in a wash of Indian Yellow. I brushed it in a varying degrees of intensity but it was not a totally flat tone wash.

When the yellow was completely dry; a second wash of Thalo blue was washed over the area. After ti was dry a mixture of Thalo blue,  Indian Yellow and Winsor Red was applied using a large 3″ flat brush.  Some areas were dry brushed.

Final Touches

Once the major tone was set I began to develop the barns with dry brush strokes, using a mixture of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red.  The white of the paper was allowed to shine through in critical areas to denote highlights. The darker detail  lines, doors, etc. are merely  stronger mixtures of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red. You will find it to be a very versatile mix. It can range from pale weathered grey to deep optical black. The cedar tree is dry brush Thalo Blue ans Winsor red as well.

blueridge farm_57 24.5x 14DSC_0693                                                 North on the Blue Ridge Trail,  20″ x 14″ 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper.

North on the Blue Ridge Trail

A beautiful vista.  I think the thing that really captured my attention was the sense of freedom. It was almost like one could just fly off toward the horizon. The wind was blowing gently with an occasional gust moving the grasses around in circular patterns. The distant haze of the mountains added to the power of the view.  The palette is identical to the last painting, only the proportions are changed.

As you look you can see that almost the entire sheet was flooded with varying degrees of Indian Yellow.  Once again the basic shape of the house and barn were avoided with the initial water wash. The entire sheet , except for the two buildings, was dampened.  The yellow was not introduced into the sky.  Look closely and you can see the effect. Due to the weather, the wash dried rapidly.  After it was dry another clear water wash was applied down to the horizon line.  Once again the buildings were avoided and left dry.  A wash of Thalo blue was applied creating a misty effect. As the paper neared drying the darker portion of blue mountain on the right was put in.


A very pale wash of Indian Yellow was washed over the entire foreground that had just been dampened with clear water. Once the area was dry a pale wash of Thalo Blue was flooded over the same area creating a delicate green.  As the large expanse began to dry I washed in a dry brush mode several washes of Thalo Blue, a bit of Indian Yellow and Winsor Red to create the shadow areas.  The darker trees are Thalo Blue.

Next Session

The language of the brush and a painting that was started outdoors and finished in the studio.

More Tips

For more tips on watercolor technique you can purchase Don Rankin’s revised, updated edition  of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I . Purchase direct at 

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